Peter Mehlman's new book was recommended to me by several people before I finally picked it up and read it over the course of a rainy weekend. You may have never heard of Peter Mehlman, but like me you probably were a fan of Seinfeld. And Peter Mehlman, like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, is one of the guys we have to thank for the wit, wisdom and shear brilliance that was the Seinfeld TV experience of the 1990s.
I must say that I was hooked on Mehlman's book, It Won't Always Be This Great (Bancroft Press, 2014), from the opening few lines. He writes:
When did being me become a full-time job? I know, it sounds unseemly to imply that you never considered yourself self-absorbed but, before the events I'm about to describe, I'd never given it any thought. So there you go, right? Maybe not. Either way, everything changed last December and it's important for you to know right off -- I haven't told this story to anyone, not even God.
Mehlman, a sports writer who used to write for the Washington Post, was a writer and producer for Seinfeld. After meeting Larry David in L.A. back in 1989, Mehlman gave him a sample script which ultimately became the Seinfeld episode "The Apartment." Over the next eight years of the Seinfeld show, Mehlman would coin such famous pop-culture phrases as "Yada Yada" and "shrinkage."
It Won't Always Be This Great is a work of fiction, but it's such a detailed and crazy narrative that one could easily believe it to be true -- in a very Jewish Larry David sort of way. The concept of the book is that the narrator is sitting bedside at a hospital and retelling an elaborate story to his comatose friend. The outlandish story begins on a Friday night in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where people stop driving on the streets at sundown for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. While the narrator, a Jewish podiatrist, isn't religiously observant, he doesn't want to be seen by his Orthodox patients driving once Shabbat has started. He explains, "Now, don't for a second think I observe Shabbos. So why would I have to walk home if I work past sundown on a Friday? Here's why: My little Long Island town has become flooded with Orthodox Jews. Some were brought up Orthodox. Others reached a certain age, took stock of their lives, came up empty and hit up God. I can only guess at the reasons but I swear, it took hold like a virus."
So, the narrator's story begins with this walk home from the office on a freezing cold Friday night. He tells his comatose college buddy that he twists his ankle and, in excruciating pain, picks up a jar of kosher horseradish and mindlessly chucks it through the window of a popular over-sexed tween girl clothing store. He's never been in trouble with the law before, but all of a sudden his life goes in hyper-drive as he finds himself being hit on by a flirtatious 19-year-old patient, who just so happens to be the daughter of the store owner with the now shattered window. Sounds like it could be a George Costanza story line on Seinfeld, doesn't it?
Mehlman's treatment of Jewish characters comes off as accurate, yet troublingly so. His characters are of that Woody Allen meets Larry David variety with a dose of your bubbie's catchphrases running though your head. "One of the perks of Judaism," Mehlman's character points out, "is that there's a better chance of your kids being studious. One of the downsides comes later, when you have to explain how good grades have no impact on your life."
Somehow, like a well-written murder mystery, Mehlman has us in his grip as we wait to see if the narrator gets implicated for the horseradish-throwing vandalism case. He seems to be an unlikely criminal as he himself explains, "It would be a perfect crime. Who's gonna suspect a Jew of anti-Semitic vandalism against a store owned by a big Jewish macher?" Realizing his comatose friend might not be familiar with the Yiddish word macher, he continues. "Macher? What's that? Oh, it's Yiddish. It means a guy who's a big deal. Something like that. Yiddish is tough to translate. On the other hand, the macher and his daughter are my long-time patients, and I didn't have to steal anything from the store."
Mehlman's writing style might not appeal to everyone, but if you find yourself with tears in your eyes from laughing so hard at episode's of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO or reruns of Seinfeld in syndication, I'm quite certain you'll enjoy Mehlman's work of literary fiction. Yes, it's absurd and will unquestionably cause some eye rolling to occur, but his ability to tease out the everyday silliness of humanity is dead on. As Aaron Sorkin aptly put it in his advanced praise for the book, "Anyone who writes for television gets frustrated that they can't write like Peter Mehlman. Now he's going to make novelists mad too."